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Killing Zombie Projects | Nick MilanovichKilling Zombie Projects

By Nick Milanovich, PhD, Director

Bio: Nick is a rare combination of scientist, speaker, and presentation coach with a head for marketing and sales. His distinguished career in science and R&D has exposed him to a wealth of fields and industries, from quantum mechanics to aerospace software and consumer products. He loves helping companies innovate, and find pathways to commercialization for good ideas.

In my experience, dead R&D projects should stay dead. However, they seem to come back to life like Zombies, haunting R&D departments and sucking the life out of a researcher’s time that could be devoted to exploring fresh ideas instead of resurrecting the dead.

Killing Zombie Projects | Nick MilanovichWhat’s a Zombie Project

Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (sic) offers a fitting allegory. A well-intentioned husband and father first loses beloved pets, and then family members. He resurrects them one after another by burying them in a cursed cemetery, rationalizing each time that he will induce a different outcome by e.g. varying burial placement, time elapsed between death and burial, and so on. Deep down, even the protagonist knows it won’t end well. The dead rise. Horror ensues.

I’ve witnessed similar R&D horror several times. When I was new to R&D for a global consumer products company, one particularly persistent zombie shambled my way in the form of an anti-microbial agent. This miracle ingredient was custom-synthesized over a decade before I joined the company, and a lot of resources were already spent trying to formulate it into toothpaste with no luck –it reacted with almost every standard ingredient that we used in our commercial products. However, this was a VP’s pet project and he bullied my boss into getting a formula ready for the clinical trial!

At one point, I remember walking by the last drum of the cursed miracle powder on Earth –literally the last supply of this stuff. The drum sat in a high-traffic lab area and I started to think, “It would be a shame if a beaker of water ‘accidentally’ spilled all over that powder. It’s a high-traffic area and accidents can happen.” It was definitely tempting, but I just kept walking.

In the end, the project finally died when I presented my project updates to the head of our department –the VP’s boss. He was shocked to find out that the PDP project had been revived. He exclaimed with irritation, “Why are we working on this, again?! I thought we killed this dog a long time ago!” in front of the VP and the rest of the department management. Thank God! Zombie dead –at least for me.

I’d kill every zombie project out there if I could. Too many times I’ve watched them crush spirits and swallow resources that would have been redirected to new ideas. That’s what I love about Xinova—we amplify R&D departments’ capacity to think beyond tired solutions and solve even the gnarliest old problems with fresh ideas from unexpected places.

By augmenting R&D departments with a pure co-innovation engine, we keep zombies in their graves.

Killing Zombie Projects | Nick MilanovichAre there Zombies in your midst?

Every R&D department seems to be cursed with Zombies. I’ve worked for many and every single one had them. They are disguised as innovation, but they are not! They are, in fact, the absence of innovation; just like a Zombie is the absence of real life. There are several telling characteristics of Zombies masquerading as innovation. Here are a few.

Pet Projects –A Euphemism for Loving Your Zombie

Who says scientists are factual, objective, and unemotional? We can certainly be enamored by our own genius. If only the rest of the world were as smart as us, then they’d see it, too. And when they do, they’ll lift us up on their shoulders and march us out of the lab in victory because our innovation doubled market share. Not!

The reality is that people are married to their old projects and can be in a position to insist that their underlings advance these ideas. I had a boss with a Zombie that he loved and wanted me to revive because now he thought he knew the right experiments to conduct. The project was on a not-so-new tooth whitening chemistry he had explored several years earlier. He showed me his old notebook of experiments and he was getting very nostalgic. That look on his face—it was like he was reading old love letters from a girlfriend. When his boss found out about this project, she shut it down immediately and practically yelled at him for wasting my time with old ideas. She kept on pressing, “What’s new about this? No own wants to see this old stuff. Don’t waste Nick’s time with this idea.” What a saint! She was my fairy godmother. I was definitely grateful that my department’s senior leadership was very thoughtful.

I know it’s wrong to say this, but I enjoyed watching my boss getting yelled at for this one. However, to his credit, he dropped his pet project and we found a new use for a polymer for preventing tooth stain. This new project led to a couple of patents for us and provided potential new product claims for one of our biggest brands. (I found out later that my boss wasted a newbie’s time with this Zombie. The newbie wrestled with it for a while, but got nowhere). 

Killing Zombie ProjectsThe Low Hanging Fruit –A Get Rich Quick Zombie

Pressure to innovate NOW –and let’s be honest, desperation— makes zombies more attractive. Today’s climate of shrinking R&D resources, coupled with relentless demand for low-risk innovation that can produce high ROI, is overwhelming. In a hypoxic environment for creating living, breathing innovation projects, the undead projects continue to rise. You might be more familiar with the street name for these Zombies: The low hanging fruit. Their appeal is understandable. They might be technically proven, have a theoretically short time to market, and help pad the list of potential innovations on a PowerPoint slide that we present to management. Let me unpack that.

Every R&D department has limited time to come up with new ideas, largely due to immediate demands from short-term projects and other activities common in corporate life. As smart as technical experts are, their thorough understanding of a subject traps them in a certain way of thinking without a way out. In other words, the experts got you to the wall, but they are not necessarily the ones to get you over it. Innovation today is increasingly risk-averse because development time can be long and mistakes are more and more costly to the company and to the expert’s reputation. This means less room for pure innovation than for, say, developing product features like a new flavor or color.  It thus takes a lot of courage —and, frankly, no experience in a field –to think differently and ask the right questions that lead to new ideas.

Zombie Pet Sematary

This brings us back to why zombie projects persist. We trust the same experts who led us into the cemetery of dead ideas to lead us out of the grave. But their understanding of a field is really an understanding and acceptance of its dogma, which makes it hard to think without bias. Now, to be sure, industry experts are of extremely high value, particularly when judging the merits and feasibility of a bold new direction. The trick is to partner with someone else who can navigate their way out of the graveyard upon a new path.

This is where globally dispersed innovation allies with R&D to fight the zombie project apocalypse.

A diverse collective of innovators, wired for creative applications of disparate technical concepts, have the advantage of coming into a problem fresh and bright-eyed. Anything is possible, and everything is solvable! The best solutions to some of the most seemingly impossible problems I’ve seen have come from outsiders re-applying concepts from seemingly unrelated fields. Using robotics to solve a food science problem; software engineers tackling water purification. It’s so satisfying to watch the expression of a co-development partner turn to wonder as they look at one of these ideas and say, “This is so obvious—why didn’t we think of this?”

My zombie project experiences—and there are many more—are far from unique. Every research and development department is haunted by zombie projects that take time and resources away from exploring new ideas. The best thing you can do is approach your work asking a lot of questions, ignoring precedent, finding new ways to bring in new ideas, and not being afraid to call your baby ugly.

Hopefully, there’s someone higher up on the food chain who can catch and kill a zombie before it causes too much damage, as my fairy godmother did for me.

It’s amazing what you can come up with when you wipe away those hopeless zombie projects.


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